Fire Extinguishers

Published January 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.

You have two minutes to put out a kitchen fire before smoke can turn deadly. So what fire extinguisher is hanging on your wall?

Overview:

Whether you’ve left a pan of oil unattended on the stove or placed a potholder too close to the burner, it’s all too easy to start a fire in the kitchen. In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, cooking mishaps are the number-one cause of home fires and home fire injuries. Like most of us, you probably have an extinguisher—somewhere. The trouble is, fires can rage out of control in a matter of seconds. You actually have less than two minutes to find that dusty, forgotten canister and figure out how to operate it before the smoke turns deadly and your kitchen is at risk for flashover, the point at which surrounding surfaces and objects reach their ignition temperature and erupt into flames. And even if you locate your extinguisher in time, do you know how to use it?

The biggest issue with fire extinguishers is that you can’t take them out to the backyard for a practice run. Once you’ve squeezed the trigger and released the pressurized contents, the device can’t be reused. What any home cook needs is a fire… read more

Whether you’ve left a pan of oil unattended on the stove or placed a potholder too close to the burner, it’s all too easy to start a fire in the kitchen. In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, cooking mishaps are the number-one cause of home fires and home fire injuries. Like most of us, you probably have an extinguisher—somewhere. The trouble is, fires can rage out of control in a matter of seconds. You actually have less than two minutes to find that dusty, forgotten canister and figure out how to operate it before the smoke turns deadly and your kitchen is at risk for flashover, the point at which surrounding surfaces and objects reach their ignition temperature and erupt into flames. And even if you locate your extinguisher in time, do you know how to use it?

The biggest issue with fire extinguishers is that you can’t take them out to the backyard for a practice run. Once you’ve squeezed the trigger and released the pressurized contents, the device can’t be reused. What any home cook needs is a fire extinguisher that is not only absolutely reliable and effective at combating common kitchen fires, but so utterly transparent to operate that a fire drill isn’t necessary.

At the Burn Building

To find the fire extinguisher that best met those requirements, I packed up a van with 40 extinguishers, a stack of frying pans, a half-dozen electric hot plates, gallons of vegetable oil, and piles of cotton dish towels and headed west out of Boston. My destination: the Worcester Fire Department Training Center and its “burn building,” a smoke-stained structure whose blackened concrete floors testify to the many blazes set here for firefighting trainees. The center, partly funded by actor and Worcester native Denis Leary of the TV series “Rescue Me,’’ serves as a command post during statewide emergencies and a training facility for firefighters throughout central Massachusetts. Under the supervision of Fire Chief Gerard Dio and Captain Kevin Maloney, I planned to start fires and put them out using the 10 brands of residential fire extinguishers I’d brought along. Six of the brands were traditional “ABC” extinguishers that fight the three most common types of fires that can break out in the home: combustible material (A), flammable liquid (B), and electrical (C). I also brought four nontraditional devices: a fire blanket designed to smother flames, two extinguishers in small aerosol cans, and a “designer” canister engineered to look so good you wouldn’t want to keep it hidden. All the traditional models were the smallest size, just 2½ pounds. Though canisters go up to 20 pounds, my feeling was that a small, light model would be easiest to handle. (Furthermore, as Captain Maloney was quick to point out, a fire big enough to require a super-size extinguisher is best left to the professionals. “There’s a very small window of time when a fire is small and contained enough that you have a chance to put it out yourself,” he emphasized. “After that, get out of the house and call the fire department.”)

As I unpacked the gear, Captain Maloney handed me a firefighter’s “turnout” coat that had obviously seen some action. Dingy with smoke, sweat, and soot, it was stiff and ponderous at 15 pounds and sheathed me from neck to knees. With the coat, the facilities of the burn building, and, hopefully, the fire extinguishers I’d brought with me, I should have enough protection as I literally played with fire.

Greased for Action

On a scorched metal mesh table, I jury-rigged a grease fire, setting a frying pan on one of the electric burners, pouring in some oil, and switching the heat to high. At the ready nearby with stopwatch in hand stood a colleague, assistant editor Meredith Butcher. The instant that flames began flickering, Meredith clicked on the watch and I snatched up the first extinguisher in my lineup. I quickly scanned the brief instructions highlighted on the side of the small, aerosol-style can—and found myself immediately thwarted by step one: removal of a tab from the black plastic top. In the dim light of the burn facility, I had trouble locating it. Crucial seconds ticked by before I managed to find the tab, rip it off, point the can, and spray. Primed for a big spray, I was unprepared when a thin string of watery foam spewed out and only a few ineffectual-looking dribbles reached the pan. Then, to my shock, a tower of flames suddenly shot into the air. Unsure whether to keep my finger on the can or run, I kept spraying. Just as suddenly, the fire was out. “Eleven seconds,” said Meredith, clicking off the watch.

Later we read the fine print on the can: “When the agent comes in contact with fire, the fire will flare and appear to grow larger. This is a normal, temporary reaction.” Really? We weren’t about to trust an extinguisher that might have done the job but scared the pants off us in the process.

For my next grease fire, I grabbed a traditional tall, red trigger-operated model. As directed, I pulled out the pin, pointed at the fire, and squeezed the trigger. A powerful stream of white foam shot across the room, landing square in the middle of the flames. Poof! They were gone. “Six seconds,” said Meredith. But almost immediately, a thick white cloud of powder drifted over the room, forcing us to head for the exit, gagging and coughing. A few minutes later, we returned to find powder coating every surface.

Overall, the performance of the extinguishers on grease fires was mixed. In my inexperienced hands, the 10 extinguishers put out the grease fire in times ranging from a mere six seconds to more than a minute and a half (we gave up when one model failed to fully squelch the flames after a scary 94 seconds). Average time: just under 20 seconds. Some models were impressive. They were easy to operate, the spray went where it was directed, they quickly doused the flames, and there seemed to be plenty of extinguishing power in reserve.

A few extinguishers didn’t seem up to the job, clogging or dripping instead of emitting a strong, directed stream. Others were far too powerful and blasted the oil with so much force I feared the burning oil would splatter out of the pan and spread the fire. Finally, it must be said that walking toward a tower of flaming oil armed only with a blanket extinguisher was an experience I’d rather not repeat. Plus, this device failed to put the fire out quickly: Even after I thought I’d doused the fire, the flames rose back up when I lifted an edge of the material to switch off the burner.

Throwing In the Towels

After putting out grease fires, I moved on to dish towels. Setting a cotton towel next to the electric coil of the burner, I waited until it was in flames and grabbed a sleek white canister that won awards for a stylish appearance that theoretically encourages you to leave it in plain sight and within easy reach. After yanking out the pin and taking a second to figure out where to push—and realizing I needed both thumbs to depress the too-stiff button—I was astonished to find the towel had disappeared: The spray had blown my flaming towel off the counter and behind it, still burning. With a performance like this, this model plunged to the bottom of the rankings.

This canister wasn’t the only one to flunk the test. Other powerful models also blew the towel off the counter but at least managed to extinguish it beforehand. One of the small, aerosol-type models spewed wet, drippy foam over the burning towel (and the surrounding area) but still failed to extinguish the flame completely. When I lifted the ruined towel off the burner to discard it, the fire flared up again. All of the extinguishers took longer to put out the towel than the grease fire, an average of 31 seconds. Finally, when the towel was still smoldering under the fire blanket after 2 minutes, we gave up. If an extinguisher couldn’t fully douse a fire in less time than that, it wasn’t a contender. We took this device out of our lineup.

The Top Extinguisher

Fire needs three things to keep burning: fuel, oxygen, and a source of heat. Fire extinguishers work by breaking the chemical reaction between one or more of these elements. The ABC, or “multipurpose,” devices (for combustible material, flammable liquid, and electrical fires) are filled with monoammonium phosphate, which forms a barrier between the fuel and oxygen. The BC extinguishers (for flammable liquid and electrical fires) contain sodium bicarbonate, a pressurized spray of baking soda, which coats the fuel to similarly cut off its supply of oxygen. The nontraditional models used proprietary formulas that manufacturers wouldn’t reveal; all we could learn was that their contents were water-based. We initially had high hopes for the small aerosol-style extinguishers, since anyone can use this familiar style with no qualms. But I was disappointed in one model’s weak spray and alarmed when one of the canisters of the other aerosol model clogged as I sprayed it on a fire (other cans of this same brand worked fine).

Ultimately, I found I felt safer and preferred the power, reliability, and effectiveness of the better traditional extinguishers, all of which have been tested by Underwriters Laboratory, the respected independent organization that confirms manufacturer performance claims. Yes, these extinguishers do spew powder everywhere—and the monoammonium phosphate in the ABC models can permanently scar the surface of appliances. But which would you rather replace, your stove or your house?

After setting—and squelching—more than 20 fires, we had a winner. We’d assumed an all-around, ABC- type extinguisher would top our list, given its versatility. But the winner’s virtues were undeniable. It stood out among the traditional models for being especially simple to operate and for its powerful, extremely controlled spray with spot-on aim that was remarkably efficient. It took just seven seconds to put out the grease fire and 21 seconds to completely snuff out the burning dish towel (and it’s not even rated for combustible material). What’s more, in each case I felt I had barely used any of the contents. This model came in neck and neck with an ABC extinguisher, which contains damaging monoammonium phosphate. While the choice between a destroyed home and a scarred stovetop is no choice at all, we felt every bit as safe with our favorite model, with its nondamaging sodium bicarbonate. When the smoke cleared, this extinguisher was our top choice for safety in the kitchen.

Methodology:

We tested nine fire extinguishers on burning vegetable oil and cotton dish towels, rating them on speed, ease of use, and effectiveness. A tenth device, a flame-retardant blanket, was so ineffective we eliminated it from consideration. Firefighters supervised our safety during testing, but all opinions and observations are our own.

UL RATING Size and type of fire that the extinguisher is designed to put out. Numbers represent approximate square feet of coverage. In products that bear the UL mark, ratings have been tested and confirmed by Underwriters Laboratories, an independent product safety and compliance certification firm.

“A”: for combustible materials such as paper, wood, cardboard, cloth, and most plastics “B”: for flammable liquids such as grease, oil, gasoline, and kerosene “C”: for electrical fires

EXTINGUISHING AGENT

Principal type of dry chemical or other agent used.

FIREFIGHTING ABILITY:

Average of scores for speed, effectiveness, and control with both grease and cloth fires.

EASE OF USE

Because fire extinguishers are used in moments of stress, often by the unprepared, we gave high ratings to intuitive, simple-to-operate devices.

LACK OF SIDE EFFECTS

We preferred devices that did not create noxious fumes, leave lots of residue, or cause eye or skin irritations, but this was given significantly less weight than firefighting ability.

POTENTIAL DAMAGE TO KITCHEN SURFACES

Dry chemical extinguishers containing monoammonium phosphate can bond to appliance surfaces and cause damage. We have indicated which models in our lineup contain this extinguishing agent.

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